Let us make the space we share better and bring the change we desire. Author is Indian Muslim, a Public Figure, Social Activist, Blogger and Media Personality. On mission to build a givers world rather than takers.
Occasionally, deaths of prisoners due to ill-health, either in a prison or in a hospital, are reported in the newspapers. We soon forget those deaths amidst reports of other deaths due to other circumstances. A recent news piece reported that 23 prisoners died of ill health during January and September of this year in the Cherlapally jail, located at the outskirts of Hyderabad. It is truly distressing news. More distressing information emerged in the process of gathering details about that incident. The information given by an officer of the said prison, in response to an enquiry by a concerned citizen under the Right to Information act, is not only surprising but disturbing. While 10 prisoners died in just the Cherlapally prison in a span of 45 days, between 1st of August and 15th of September, 23 have died since the beginning of this year. By the time I gathered the above information (the 21st December), the number reached 32.When I tried to probe further, the facts really shocked me. The hospital sources revealed me that 7 inmates were brought dead to the hospital. About 12 prisoners died within 24 hours of their admission into the hospital. In one instance, when one of the prisoners was sent to Gandhi Hospital for a heart-related complaint, the doctors sent him back to the prison after merely checking his blood pressure and the heart pulse, without administering any tests related to the reported ailment of the heart. He died the very next day of heart failure. 12 of the dead prisoners were below the age of 25. About 16 of them were still part of the trial process and are under judicial custody. In judicial parlance, they are described as under trials. A few of them might have been proved innocent and released alive had they been taken to the Court without fail , had the escort police arrived without fail, or if the hearings had started within an acceptable period from the time of their incarceration. Even among the convicted, many spend more time in jail awaiting trial than the conviction would require them to. Hence, a few of those who died would have been back with their families had the judicial process not detained them. Informed of the above death dance, even senior jail officials were shocked about the state of affairs.
Further inquiry revealed that 3 posts of doctor had been lying unfilled. An ambulance is present, but had been awaiting a driver for 2 years. Neither was present a pharmacist. One Dentist and a Psychiatrist were performing the general duties. In a scramble, 3 doctors and a driver were recruited in the last week of this September. What should one infer from the above tragic tale? Is it the result of the shirking of responsibility by prison administrators? Or is it the result of negligence and lack of interest in fellow humans among prison officials? Or even worse, is it the result of a dangerous mindset that considers prisoners as dispensable and does not value their lives? We should introspect! The last possibility was reinforced when a prison official opined that those prisoners would have died due to illness, even if they were outside the prison walls. To explore the truth in that official’s statement, let us consider the possibility that the prisoners who died in jail were ill before they were incarcerated. To inquire into the reasons as why many succumb soon after their imprisonment, and expose the lies of such officials, we will have to know the story of Sangadula Venkateswara Rao, who died within 18 hours of his arrest, in February of this year.
Sangadula Venkateswara Rao was a Deputy Collector in the Urban Ceiling division of the Government. He was taken into custody on 14th February, along with his son Amarnath, by sleuths of the Anti Corruption Bureau on charges of graft. Subsequently they were questioned and presented before the magistrate in Nampally. As the night fell at the end of their proceedings, they were kept in the Abids Police Station for that night and were transferred to the Cherlapally jail the next morning i.e, 15th February. Prior to sending Rao to the barracks, jail authorities seized the insulin kit from his bag. Upon being told by his son that his father suffers from acute diabetes and needs insulin every 6 hours, the prison officials replied that the insulin kit will be sent to him after examination. Within two hours, he started sweating profusely. By evening, his sugar levels dropped precipitously and his health deteriorated alarmingly. Despite the shouts for help by his son, no prison official responded. At 9 in the night, flailing his arms, Venkateswara Rao fell unconscious. Responding to the collective scream by prisoners, the administrators arrived and took him, who was already dead, to the Gandhi hospital. The doctors declared that he had been brought dead. But jail officials insisted that he died in the hospital. In a petition to the high court, his son Amarnath declared that his father died writhing in his presence, in the jail itself. In the post-mortem report, the doctors too opined that Venkateswara Rao died due to the fall in sugar levels and due to heart failure as a result of inadequate blood circulation and supply. A tragic and a heart wrenching end!
However, prison administrators take the stand that prisoners arrive with many and varied ailments and that it is inappropriate to say that prisoners deaths are due to remaining behind prison walls. As per the Section 25 of the Prisons Act of 1894, everyone who is taken into custody, immediately after his/her arrival at the prison, must be examined by a doctor and administered the required medical tests. It also mandates that the information and history of the health of a prisoner must be noted on his/her personal history sheet. Those with chronic ailments must be examined periodically and provided the required care. The dietary needs too have to be provided for. However, the present condition in jails leaves much to be desired. Prisoners might be examined from time to time, but the attention stops at that and no further care is provided for as a norm.
Only when a prisoner suffers acutely is any attempt made to send him/her to a public hospital. In one incident of hope in Warangal, Cardiologist Dr. Srinivas examined voluntarily over 600 prisoners and submitted their comprehensive health reports to prison administrators. The prison officials too concurred that those reports benefitted the respective people while within the prison walls. To say that those who died in prison would have died outside the prison too is nothing short of criminal negligence and shirking of one’s responsibilities. There is an acute need for a special medical arrangement in prisons. Many studies have been conducted on the trauma that prisoners undergo; about the psychological effects of being removed from the larger society and family and condemned to lead a lonely life. Those studies, conducted primarily on prisoners in the USA, where jails teem with prisoners, also investigated the diseases that prisoners are likely to develop.
Such studies have concluded that immunity of the prisoners decrease considerably due to inadequate nutrition and dairy products, and that consequently prisoners are more prone to infectious diseases. They are also more likely to suffer from blood pressure, low sugar levels, bloodlessness (Anaemia), and ailments of the lung such as cough, breathlessness, and Pneumonia. Another study in European jails added that prisoners are also more likely to suffer from Hepatitis, and ailments of the heart such as Angina (wherein heart muscles do not get enough oxygen-rich blood), and mitochondria-related problems of the heart. It is probably not coincidental that most of those who died in the Cherlapally jail died of heart-related problems.
According to a report by the Asian Center for Human Rights, in the year 2011, while 1504 people died in police stations, 12,272 prisoners died in jails of India. It translates into the death of 4 prisoners every day; a situation that is alarming and that needs urgent attention. There is no laid down norms for payment of compensation to the victims’ families. The compensation is paid; only on the recommendation of the NHRC.But surprisingly the Prison authorities very sincerely send the video recording of the post mortem process and boast of themselves that they are meticulously following NHRC guidelines.
In our state, the issue of political prisoners and their condition in jails is taken up from time to time by a few organizations. However, no one pays attention to the deaths of prisoners who die anonymous. Those lesser mortals are not part of any politically mobilized group. They are not card carrying members of a political party or a revolutionary collective. Most of their crimes are petty, related to minor feuds about land and within their family. Many others are those who have indulged in petty theft.
Newly elected governments have been promising a compassionate institution of the Police, by bringing in reforms in the institution of police and in prison conditions. As guardians of democratic institutions, unless we take interest in the lives of prisoners living in such brutal conditions, unless we work to improve their conditions, there might arise a situation when we will not be able to forgive ourselves.
Human Rights Activist